Nancy Cruzan, whose feeding tube was removed Dec. 14 ending a legal battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, died Wednesday after almost eight years of being in a vegetative state, hospital officials said.

Cruzan, 33, who had become a key in the battle between right-to-die activists and their opponents, had been steadily deteriorating since her parents, Lester L. and Joyce Cruzan of Carterville, won their battle to remove the tube that supplied her with food and water.About 20 people protesting the removal of the feeding tube remained outside the hospital after Cruzan died about 3 a.m. Wednesday morning.

The family released a statement saying, "She remained peaceful throughout and showed no sign of discomfort or distress in any way. Her family was at Nancy's bedside when she died."

The family thanked the administration and staff of the hospital for their support, as well as "the many people from all walks of life from around the country who have written and called to express support."

"Knowing Nancy as only a family can, there remains no question that we made the choice she would want," the statement concluded. "Nancy, we will always love you and hold your memory in our hearts."

Opponents of the court ruling that allowed the Cruzan family to withhold food and water from the woman expressed their disappointment.

"This woman died absolutely needlessly in a cold and calculated way, " said Cathy Ramey, a spokeswoman for Operation Rescue of Binghamton, N.Y., an anti-abortion group. "We are enormously grieved that the courts were unwilling to advocate for her. We're saddened that her parents had so totally rejected her that they put her in a position where she was starved to death."

The Rev. Joseph Foreman of Montreat, N.C., leader of an anti-abortion group called Prisoners of Christ, also blasted the family.

"I sympathize with the hardship of caring for a helpless woman, but I have absolutely no sympathy for a family who solves their problems by starving their daughter to death when there were hundreds of bona fide offers to care for her regardless of her condition," said Foreman.

"A criminal gets more legal protection than Nancy Cruzan did."

However, Father Kevin O'Rourke of St. Louis University, an expert on medical ethics, said the family had done the right thing.

"I hope it leads to a better understanding that this is not killing a person but rather allowing a person to die because you can't help any more," O'Rourke said.

Cruzan was 25 on the night of Jan. 11, 1983, when she was thrown from her car in a crash near her home in Cartersville, Mo. When the highway patrol found her, they found no sign of breathing or heartbeat. Paramedics were able to restart her heart and lungs but her brain had been without oxygen for 12 to 14 minutes.